The HeART of Design Business, Part 2: Minutes

The HeART of Design Business Part2 MinutesIn Part One of this five-part series on the HeART of Design Business, I considered how a negative view of money, and of commercial enterprise in general, can demotivate a designer from the business aspects of their work. Our resistance to evaluating balance sheets and tracking our cash flow rises when we suspect that matters of finance are somehow tainting or corrupting the purity of our artistic expressions.

But money is not the only business matter that can challenge the artistic sensibilities of the graphic artist. Here in part two of this series I’ll address the limiting factor of time. Does your creativity falter when you are aware that the minutes assigned to your task are unrelentingly ticking by?

Time constraints do not have to undermine creativity—but we will have to come to terms with the ticking clock in order to escape its tyranny.

Measuring the time you spend in the various activities of your business is a crucial discipline for running a professional design practice. And I don’t just mean measuring the time you spend on projects. You need to track all of your time: administration, marketing, meetings, professional development, communications, and the like. And if you have employees you must insist that they track all their time as well. I’ve written on the hows and whys of time tracking before so I’ll just assert the necessity of time tracking and move on to my main purpose in this series. We want to address the heart, the inner barriers we have to tracking time. Sure it’s always a pain in the neck, but the real resistance comes from someplace deeper.

Do Deadlines Kill Creativity?

The most common objection to time tracking is that “deadlines stifle creativity,” or “you can’t rush the creative process.” When you took the S.A.T. you were probably worried that you might forget a theorem or not know a definition—but the added stress of that exam was knowing that time was running out. Soon you would hear the dreaded “pencils down!” Trying to do creative work under “pencils down” pressure can truly stifle creativity. If your account manager keeps poking their head in the door for an update on the status of your work, the quality of your work is going to suffer.

On the other hand we all know that time is a limited resource and deadlines must be met. Ideally our projects are afforded sufficient time and have reasonable schedules. Ideally. But even when projects have reasonable timeframes, there is something about the very awareness of time passing by, of the ticking of the clock, that can stifle our creativity. A heightened awareness of time limits, even when a reasonable amount of time has been allowed, can kill the creative process. We’ve all experienced being “in the zone,” locked in on our work, losing a sense of time, and being completely wrapped up in the process. But then an alarm, or an interruption, or a phone call disrupts that experience. And so, in a sense, simply being too aware of time can keep us out of “the zone” and limit our creative productivity. That is why introducing time tracking systems and policies often provoke negative reactions from designers. It’s not just that it’s a pain; it is an impediment to maximum creativity.

Can we reconcile the need to track time with the value of being able to focus our creative energy? I think we can.

Related: Project management isn’t just for project managers. As these 5 commissions prove, there’s a lot the PM pros can teach designers about managing their own projects.

Getting Past the Time Barrier

First we must come to terms with reality. Every project has a budget and every budget defines a time limit. Time is an absolutely firm, unstoppable, nonrenewable, function of our lives. We can’t make more of it, so we must portion it out. We have to accept that limit. It’s a simple function of being mortal. But when we do come to terms with it, I think there are ways to turn it to our advantage. But getting there will require us to gain a broader perspective of our work over a much longer timescale.

Measuring for the Long Term

Bill Gates once quipped, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” I think as designers we always want the project we’re working on right now to be our masterpiece. As we work we’re often thinking in the background, “Maybe this will win an award,” or, “This will look great in my portfolio.” That’s an example of overestimating what we can accomplish in just one project.

What if, instead, we took the long view? What if we focused on how each project we do contributes something to our creative formation—that each new problem is developing our creative point of view? What if, instead of swinging for the fences every time, we simply set out to do good work time after time, week after week—not getting caught up in the eddies in the stream of perfection? Maybe then we could view time as an ally rather than striving against it an unbeatable enemy.

Much of the debilitating pressure that comes from facing time limits is a self defeating reality. We can psych ourselves out under that pressure. But if taking the long view can help relieve that pressure, so that we’re not striving so hard against it, then we will be free to make the most out of each opportunity.

So we need to come to terms with the relentless clock, and come to terms with our deadlines. We need to remember, in the face of passing time, that time is producing something in us. It’s building into us, even as it is taking hours off the clock.

The Business Benefits of Measuring Time

If we adopt this broader view it can help us contend with time pressures. Seeing the big picture can help at a heart level. But what about the minute by minute realities? If we are going to measure our time, and start and stop a timer throughout the day—won’t that inevitably interrupt our creative flow? Doesn’t the very action of engaging a time measurement system reintroduce the all tensions of time? It may be a simple act to click a digital timer, but it can feel disproportionately weighty because it is a constant reminder that time is running out. A three-second act can produce a disproportionate anxiety that we’ll running out of time, that we’re going to miss our deadline, or go over budget. The broad view can temper this anxiety, but the moment by moment actions of time tracking can feel oppressive.

So we need to add to our broad view time an appreciation for the upside of daily time tracking. And that requires having a clear understanding of what collecting time data is supposed to do.

What You Gain from Tracking Time

Again, let me reference my other articles on the particulars of tracking time so I address the heart of the day to day experience. Granted, reporting time is a pain. And yes, it does remind us of impending deadlines. But the goal of measuring time is ultimately to effectively portion our our time for each phase of a project. And when a firm has dependable time data to evaluate projects (and assuming they regularly evaluate that data) they can learn to adjust processes and budgets to facilitate doing good work. Without that data project, managers simply make educated guesses about time and budget. Let’s just say that most people are poor guessers—which leads to even more project stress! It’s one thing to face the universal realities of time pressure—it’s altogether another problem to function under completely unreasonable and ill-conceived deadlines. But the solution to better budgets and deadlines only comes from having good data to analyze on the front end of project planning. And that comes from designers and other staff providing thorough, complete, and accurate time reports. And that requires that they get over any inner resistance to this practice and adopt a compliant, if not positive, attitude toward their timesheets.

So by doing the simple, daily discipline of time recording we are actually creating the necessary information, the only information, that will help solve those much more consequential problems. In addition to overcoming the tensions from facing day-to-day time limits by taking the long view, we can overcome the moment-by-moment angst of measuring and reporting time by remembering that these bits of data are the means by which we will gain appropriate time allotments for our work. We’re helping ourselves, and improving our process and experience, by keeping track of the time we spend working.

We need to make time our ally in the design process instead of striving against a reality that soon or later wins out anyway.

In the next installment of the HeART of Design Business, we’ll consider the tensions of the designer firm owner and their marketing.


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